Ever since its invention back in the 18th century, photography has been documenting life. At the same time, it focuses on inviting audiences to a rather subjective world while trying to be taken seriously as an art form. Photography has always been considered a male dominated profession, but luckily things are changing. Scholars, writers, bloggers, photography students and enthusiasts have been giving due to the female pioneers of the field. Most of them were always standing and/or hiding in the shadows, oblivious to how much they could acclaim and accomplish. Arguably, the technique, concepts and themes female photographers use, differ from those of male photographers. When most women were convinced that their place was in the kitchen and certainly not in the dark room, there were those who were struggling to surpass their male counterparts and work towards gaining respect and recognition for their work.
20th Century Female Photographers
If you want me to explain the picture, if you put it in reality, then the mystery goes away. The situation just catches you and you think it is absurd or mysterious and you just take the picture. You don’t want to see the bare reality of what happened. I took the picture as the picture, not as the realistic story of what happened.
Maggie Diaz (American-Australian photographer, 1925-2016) was a pioneer for Australian women photographers. She was born in the USA, but moved to Australia when she was 36. Diaz quickly managed to establish herself as one of Melbourne’s leading commercial photographers. As a teenager in the United States, during the Second World War, she worked in a steel mill and bakeries to support her family.
By the time she was 20, she was diagnosed as “difficult and depressed” and was given electro shock treatments. In 1951, she became a junior office worker in an advertising agency while attending art school at night. She was asked to go out with photographers as an assistant and eventually the agency provided Diaz with her own camera, which she paid off from her wages.
Diaz’s early 35mm work begins at this time, recording children in the neighbourhood and life on the streets of Chicago. She later won a photography prize in the Chicago Tribune with a portrait of a young man in a tunnel. The $500 prize allowed her to begin her work as a freelance photographer. The Diaz Collection dates back to 1950’s Chicago and the archive has been acquired by the State Library of Victoria, with work in the collections of the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia. In 2011 she was featured as the sole woman in a group exhibition at the State Library of Victoria. Her work is marked by the contrast of the commercial world and its glamour and the people outside of society, with whom Diaz felt a connection to. She became known for favouring natural, available light and for her wanting to capture Melbourne’s artistic and everyday life. Maggie Diaz’s life was as colourful and varied as her work, and even though she lived in a world where women were mostly viewed and photographed through a hyper-sexualised male gaze, her women composites commanded respect and understanding, instead of lust.
Eva Fuka (Czech-American photographer, 1927-2015) came from a family of artists, attended the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague and later studied at the Academy of Visual Arts, from 1945 to 1950. Fuka started taking photographs systematically in 1951 and today ranks between the founding figures of Czech photography. After 12 years of work, she was the first woman in Czechoslovakia to be granted the privilege of publishing a monograph. Many believe that hers was probably the first monograph of a woman photographer ever to be published. In 1967, Eva defected with her family to the United States. While in the States she continued to work and exhibit her pictures and sculptures, in her home country she didn’t even exist. Many have described Eva’s artwork as surreal and melancholic, which she mostly achieved by using her environment to create unreal settings with a dreamlike atmosphere.
Ruby Spowart (Australian photographer, 1928-) is an award-winning photographer, whose images of outback landscapes are based on some 40 safari tours in Australia and New Zealand. Ruby is a triple Master of Photography, Fellow and Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography. She achieved a Certification in Art from the Queensland College of Art, as well as an Associate Diploma of Visual Art from Queensland University of Technology. Co-founder of the Brisbane Imagery Gallery in 1982, she exhibited there until 1995. From Polaroid colour photograms in the 1980’s to large-scale photo mosaics in the 1990’s and photobooks since 2000, Spowart has created a considerable body of work. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Professional Photographers (AIPP) and one of six Australian female photographers who were celebrated by the AIPP. She has created an immense body of work in different techniques and has won many awards, including several from the McGregor Prize for Photography. Today, at 91 years old, she’s still considered a living legend within the photographic fraternity.
We will continue talking about female names that left their mark in photography and about contemporary female photographers who are still to emerge. There are a lot of female photographers out there deserving of praise and we can only hope to cover as many of them as we can. Please, follow this space to find out more.
Why I chose a camera as the instrument for my expression is obvious: It allows me best to give life to my love and admiration for confrontation, contrast and the absurdity of life. For me, photography is a means which gives my eyes power to save and force to live the moments otherwise doomed to be lost.